What my year of death has taught me about life: An argument against euthanasia
(Originally published July 5, 2020)
I never thought I’d write about euthanasia.
Honestly, the topic has always made me exceedingly uncomfortable. I am firmly pro-life, but I have always felt far less strongly about euthanasia than about the importance of providing for refugees or the need to care for women and their unborn children.
Euthanasia has always been, for me, an issue rather too close to home.
Both my remaining grandparents passed away recently: my grandfather in February, blessedly before the COVID-19 restrictions came into full force, allowing us to have a proper funeral; and my grandmother in June, whose memorial was a quiet backyard affair with family and close friends. Both of them died after enduring a great deal of pain: among other health issues, my grandfather had widespread cancer throughout his body, while my grandmother suffered from Parkinson’s disease and dementia. When my grandfather died, my grandmother begged him to take her with him, and repeatedly told my uncle that she was only "a burden”. By the time she passed away, she only spoke in the faintest of whispers, and had all but reverted to her native language of German.
After enduring the Great Depression, World War II, and a difficult life spread across three continents, it seemed cruel and unfair that both of my grandparents should pass away in the midst of such crippling pain, robbed of their dignity and quality of life. The empty platitudes people frequently offer at funerals— “they had a good life”; “they’re out of pain now”; “they’re in a better place”—were no longer enough for me. I doubt they are ever really enough for anybody.
I have an unofficial policy in life and faith of holding the important things tightly and the less important things lightly. On the core truths of my Christian faith, I am absolutely certain. I know Jesus Christ died to reconcile me to God. I know there is a life beyond this one, a Heaven and a Hell. I know all life is exceedingly valuable to God and that He knows when a single sparrow falls to the ground, even numbering the very hairs on our head (Matthew 10:29-31).
But I have never been able to wrap my head around the topic of euthanasia. What about locked-in syndrome, God? What about quadriplegia? What about dementia? What about trigeminal neuralgia, nicknamed “suicide syndrome” for being the most painful condition known to doctors? What about dignity and quality of life?
For a God who is able to number every hair on our head, sometimes it seems as if He does not count our many sorrows.
Since January 2018, I’ve struggled with chronic illness, which forced me to give up my work as a psychologist in November of that same year. And though I’m not dying, at least not any faster than the usual declining replicating-cells-to-dead-cells ratio, I have been in such severe pain that the highest dosage of morphine the hospital could give me was not enough. As such, I can empathise a little with those who feel they have no choice but to end their life. And I write this not only for those who want nothing more than a release from their pain, but also for myself.
Pain reminds us that the world is dying
The reality of death always shatters our illusions about the permanence of life.
We should never forget that this world is in its death throes. Pain is only a symptom of a cursed Earth that was dying long before we entered it. Pain and death are the starkest reminders that life as it is now was never life as God intended it to be. If you are weary of life, weary of the world, weary of the ubiquitous and lonely nature of suffering, then there is nothing wrong with your vision. You are, like Neo in The Matrix, seeing the world for what it truly is. It is broken. It is ugly. And it is dying.
It is right to be angry about death
Death, quite honestly, makes me furious. When I think about the pain of my beloved grandmother’s passing, and that there were many times where she had lost all hope, I seethe with the words of the poet Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night/Old age should burn and rave at close of day…”
We shouldn’t ever feel comfortable about death. We shouldn’t sanitise it. It is horrible, evil, wrong. It is the enemy of every man, woman, and child who has ever lived. It is the canary in the coal mine or the black cat in the Matrix that tells us that there is something very wrong with the world the way it is. It exposes the illusion of perceived control over the course of our lives as being just that: an illusion.
But, in your grief, know that you aren’t alone. In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul writes that “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22). If you are remotely familiar with the process of childbirth, Paul’s analogy will carry particular weight. If you are in agony, know that the entire world groans along with you for liberation from this state of bondage and decay.
Beware the allure of the illusion
In The Matrix, the character Cypher is offered an opportunity to be re-inserted into the world of the Matrix in exchange for betraying his friends. Sitting in a fine restaurant with the main antagonist, Agent Smith, eating a steak, Cypher muses:
You know, I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realise? Ignorance is bliss.
What does this tell us? Most of us, myself included, prefer the lovely illusion to the awful reality. Perhaps that is why so many of us look back on our pasts with an air of wistful, golden-tinted nostalgia, wishing we could rewind the clock and just be a kid again… or wind it back still further and ensure we’d never been born. The greatly afflicted Job, after learning the full extent of his losses, wishes for exactly that:
“May the day of my birth perish, and the night that said, ‘A boy is conceived!’
That day—may it turn to darkness; may God above not care about it; may no light shine on it. […]
for it did not shut the doors of the womb on me to hide trouble from my eyes.
This is not an expression of imminent suicidality, but an anguished declaration of unbearable pain felt by a man who has lost absolutely everything: health, family, and livelihood/security.
But what about euthanasia? How can God not want to put us out of our misery?
This is the very question I’ve wrestled with since 2014, when I lay in the hospital with pain so severe that if someone had handed me a gun, I likely wouldn’t be here today. If life is so unbearable, wouldn’t God forgive me for cutting it short?
But after years of reflection, and watching my grandparents die, I’ve come to the following conclusions.
1. Euthanasia denies the truth that suffering is always temporary
When you’re in pain, it’s impossible to believe anything but that this suffering is going to go on forever.
In cases like mine, where the source of the agonising pain was discovered and surgically rectified, the solution seems more straightforward. No doctor in that hospital would have ever offered me a euthanasia syringe (although, at the time, I begged them to sedate me). Why? They knew there was hope that they would discover the source of the problem, and that I would get better.
In the case of severe psychological pain, even a secular psychologist would be remiss if they did not remind their clients that even the worst mental and emotional pain will not last forever, that thoughts and feelings are not facts, and that how we feel right now is not as it always will be.
And yet, with recent pushes to extend euthanasia to mental illness or other, non-life-threatening conditions, it becomes apparent that there are some inherent contradictions in the logic underpinning a pro-euthanasia stance: that is, we cannot have our proverbial cake and eat it too. If we would beckon the imminently suicidal person from the ledge with one hand, we must not then offer them death with the other hand, for one vitally important reason: we can see what the potential jumper, in their cloud of anguish, has momentarily lost sight of. Their pain is but temporary. Even the worst situation can be worked through with loving guidance and support.
This is especially true in the light of eternity. As a Christian, I believe that this life is not the end, that the well-meaning reassurance “they’re out of pain now” is rooted in a deeper truth.
And yet, even on a worldly level, euthanasia as an approach to human pain has rightly been exposed as a "slippery slope". What about the person who is not terminally ill but weary of life? Will we offer them a way out instead of a way through?
2. Euthanasia denies the inherent dignity of human life
For many, there is hope for better days ahead, but what about cases where a person is terminally ill? What about the person who has no hope of ever getting better, or faces a long and potentially painful death?
Advocates of euthanasia will argue that a humane and painless death preserves the dignity of human life and prevents needless suffering. Indeed, my own grandmother echoed this same logic when she repeatedly worried that her care was burdensome to us. We reassured her “you’ve spent your entire life looking after all of us; this is our time to look after you”.
We live in a world which defines people by what they do or achieve, by what they can contribute to the running of society. Indeed, one of the greatest tragedies which has recently befallen America is that, in a bid to preserve a flailing economy, they have sacrificed the lives of the elderly citizens who once built the foundations of that very same economy. It is a ruthless decision simultaneously applauded and mourned by many.
With our elderly and disabled kept largely out of sight of everyday life, it is easy to forget that death and pain dwell among us as the rule and not the exception. Moreover, we have not only forgotten the reality of our own mortality, but we have lost access to the wisdom of an entire generation and the truths they might speak into our life. We terminate our children when they are the wrong gender or are likely to be born disabled. Down’s syndrome is only one of many conditions that are grounds to terminate, even despite the many families who testify to the pure, childlike joy exhibited by a person with Down’s.
In a world which defines us by what we look like, how much we achieve or contribute, or what we do for the collective, God values us for who we are. We are made in the image of our Creator (Genesis 1:27). Even in our fallen, mortal state, when we are dying from the moment we are born, we are declared to be fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14).
Over the past twenty months of being unable to work, as a twenty-eight-year-old who should have been at the very beginning of their life and career, I wrestle with this. My husband continually tells me that I am valuable even on the days when I am forced to stay in bed. He is the breadwinner, the doer of most chores and tasks around the house. He pays the bills and organises our finances. He does almost all of the driving. Neither of us know if I will ever be able to return to work. And yet he has chosen to love me and value me all the same.
God’s love, my friends, is a lot like that. God declares that we are valuable even when we can contribute absolutely nothing to the turning cogs of the universe. His love goes against the grain of every theory of eugenics ever conceived and even the very principle of natural selection.
He loves not only the fittest, but the failures.
It is with this foundation that I can declare that dignity is possible even in great pain. It is with these eyes that I glimpse afresh the uniqueness of my long-time hero, Joni Eareckson Tada, who has battled a lifetime of quadriplegia, chronic pain, and even cancer. In her weakness, she has discovered God’s unfailing strength (2 Corinthians 12:10). In a world that would have preferred she was never born, she leans hard on a God who loved her enough to die for her.
3. Euthanasia prevents us from persevering in hope
Euthanasia is deeply alluring because it keeps us from pausing to contemplate the bitter reality of this world. A swig of this horrible draught should compel us not only to anger or sadness, but into a search for something better. Instead, like Cypher in The Matrix, too often we choose to ignore the awful reality and immerse ourselves in the beautiful delusion, chasing a dead dream rather than living hope.
By returning to the delusion, again and again, we not only deny hope for ourselves, but we decline to offer it to others. If we live as if this world is the only one there is, then euthanasia as a solution to the bitter brew of life makes perfect sense—and not just for the terminally ill. But if there is a hope of something more, something far better than the life we have now, then we are not only short-changing ourselves, but robbing everyone who has ever suffered.
On the day my grandfather died, I read Revelation 21 with my grandmother. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I hovered over the familiar words: “'He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death' or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." I later read these same words while delivering my grandfather’s eulogy.
These words have never been so real to me as they are now. They are even more stirring in the face of an ongoing illness which has a litany of diagnoses but no clear treatment or end.
On the days when I am in pain, I don’t need anyone to offer me a gun or a humane syringe.
I need hope.
I need to be reminded to press on, to persevere, even if I will be sick until my dying day. I need to learn how to find joy in Christ, even in the midst of great suffering (Romans 5:3-5). I need to think more about Heaven.
I need Jesus, as the old hymn goes, every hour of every day. Sometimes every minute. Last night, I needed him from breath to breath. I need to meditate on the truth that Jesus Himself will one day wipe away my every tear. That there is a place set aside for me, not infiltrated or corrupted by the pattern of this world.
My grandmother died holding fast to that very hope. It sustained her through her darkest hour. She is now at the end of her race even while I’m still slogging through mine (Hebrews 12:1).
4. Euthanasia takes our focus away from Jesus
In running this race, it can be very easy to forget that Jesus has run it before us. He has pioneered and perfected the trail lying ahead of us (Hebrews 12:2). He wept for His dead friend even when He knew He would raise him to life again (John 11:35). Jesus is familiar with our every pain because He experienced human weakness himself (Hebrews 4:15).
To those who are in agony, it might sound like I’m dismissing your suffering. I’m not. But just as a woman endures excruciating labour to give birth to a child, and is afterwards seized by a great joy which makes the whole thing worthwhile, I want you to know that the endpoint of your suffering is coming. As Joni Eareckson Tada claims as her lifelong motto: “God permits what he hates to accomplish what he loves.”
And the matter is already accomplished (John 19:30). Death is defeated. Victory is won. Because of the Cross, death is not the way out.
The apostle Peter writes:
And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.
I remind myself that Peter has unique street cred in writing these words, for he lived by them even while enduring his own death: a gruesome Roman crucifixion upside down.
The rest of the world scorns this kind of hope, and if this life is truly all we have, then rightly so. Even Paul declares: “If our hope in Christ is for this life alone, we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Corinthians 15:19). The way I see it, any Christian argument that opposes euthanasia must rest upon the same foundation as the case for the Christian faith itself.
We must, of course, be careful to approach the issue of euthanasia with the same grace and compassion we are to demonstrate in all areas of the Christian life. On the fiftieth anniversary of her diving accident which left her a quadriplegic, Joni Eareckson Tada reflects that the word "compassion" can be divided into two halves: "com" meaning "with", and "passion" meaning "Christ's suffering". Therefore, the concept of compassion translates to "Christ-with-me-in-suffering".
How differently might we feel on the issue of euthanasia if we approached any worldly trial as an opportunity not only to suffer with those going through the darkest valleys of their lives, but to suffer with Christ? We have the hope of Heaven. We have the comfort and solace of the Holy Spirit. We have the gift of eternal life through Jesus. Only when we take hold of all that can we fervently conclude, as King David does in the famous Psalm: "I lack nothing".